Keeler: Kyle Shanahan ignored Christian McCaffrey in third quarter. And it cost him Super Bowl LVIII.
Cherry Creek did Valor Christian dirty. A game that should’ve been in Christian McCaffrey’s hands in the third quarter wound up in Patrick Mahomes’ mitts during overtime.
Oh, there will be other Super Bowls for Kyle Shanahan, pride of Cherry Creek, son of Broncos icon Mike Shanahan. But if Chiefs 25, 49ers 22 stings a little more on Monday in Broncos Country, it’s because Little Shanny waited too stinking long to change course. It’s because the AFC’s newest dynasty feels as if it’s riding a wave of Front Range tears.
And let’s be frank: It’s because McCaffrey, the 49ers star and former Valor bell cow, touched the ball 14 times in the first half and just three times in the third quarter, a stretch that helped Mahomes and Patriots West get up off the mat.
It wasn’t the same script as the one that burned young Shanahan as badly as when he was offensive coordinator with the Falcons — a 28-3 Super Bowl lead turned, inexplicably, into another Tom Brady triumph.
But the beats felt eerily close. Little Shanny responded to a touchdown cushion and a Mahomes interception coming out of halftime with six straight pass plays … which amassed negative-2 net yards. For a painful, fleeting moment, Kyle forgot he had the best tailback in the free world. He let Mahomes hang around too long.
We already know how much the football gods love No. 15. Why tease or tempt them? Look at Kansas City’s postseason path. Miami at home? Minus-27 wind chill. Buffalo on the road? Wide right. Baltimore on the road? Lamar Jackson forgot he was Lamar and tied himself up in knots trying to be Mahomes.
With 2:32 left in the third stanza, those gods finally struck. A Chiefs punt scraped the heel of Niners special-teamer Darrell Luter Jr. and eventually was recovered by KC’s Jaylen Watson at the San Fran 16.
Never one to refuse a gift, Mahomes pounced on the very next play, finding a wide-open Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the front of the end zone for an easy score and the Chiefs’ first lead of the evening, 12-10.
San Fran, meanwhile, had opened with stanza with the rock at the KC 44, thanks to a clutch pick. Nothing. Shanahan got it back at the Niners 36. Still nada.
This after Little Shanny and the Niners had ceded the halftime stage to Usher nursing a 10-3 lead — a scoreline that flattered the defending champs.
Midway through the second quarter, the Chiefs’ ball of championship steel wool appeared to be unraveling, one strand at a time. CBS cameras showed Travis Kelce running over to coach Andy Reid, like a man possessed, and shoving his longtime coach in his side, raging and barking as if Captain Cheeseburger had just name-dropped one of Taylor Swift’s ex-paramours.
Despite both teams’ sloppy starts, Shanahan was at least wise enough not to forget what he had in the backfield — McCaffrey touched the ball 14 times those first two quarters, nine of them carries.
But the sweetest came on what looked, at first, like a broken play salvaged by speed and insanity. Slowed down, though, it became apparent that The Son of The Mastermind is indeed a chip off the old zone block.
With 4:23 left until halftime, Niners wideout Jauan Jennings caught a lateral in the left flat, eyes upfield. Only he shifted quickly to his right, flicking a pass, this one a wounded duck, in the direction of McCaffrey. The Denver native had to spring to snare the ball in mid-flight, building up a head of steam the way Popeye does after wolfing down a can of spinach.
Valor Christian’s finest, sure enough, proved strong to the finish. With at least two Niners blockers obstructing traffic in the right flat, McCaffrey turned what looked like sheer insanity into a 21-yard touchdown sprint and a 9-0 cushion.
Kyle learned his lessons well. But the son of Mike, who coached the Broncos to back-to-back championships, also knew when to fold ’em on this stage. When to hold ’em. When to walk away. And, most importantly, when to run.
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